Tonight, we saw the best and the worst of this Kentucky team. After blowing Mississippi State’s zone wide open in the first half, Kentucky got up by as much as 20 points in the second before trying to hand the game back over at the end. Thankfully, the Cats were 6-6 from the free throw line in the final minute to seal the 80-74 victory.
…But man, that was ugly. So ugly I can only break it down in terms of “good” and “bad.”
GOOD: Guard play
Before the season even began, we knew this was going to be a guard-oriented team; however, I don’t know if we anticipated the guards being the only good part. Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, and Isaiah Briscoe accounted for 57 of UK’s 80 points tonight, a staggering 71%.
Each guard shone in their own way: Ulis finally got into a scoring groove in the second half; Murray was on fire from the outside in the first; and Briscoe followed up a strong shooting performance with another, chipping in 14 points off 7-9 from the floor. As Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said afterwards, Kentucky has “about as good a backcourt as you can find in the country.”
Unfortunately, the backcourt didn’t hold up their part of the bargain.
BAD: Post play
Last Tuesday, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee disappeared at LSU, combining for four points. They returned at Alabama, scoring 33 points, easing all of our worries a little bit…until tonight. Tonight, Alex and Marcus combined for eight points, a stat line saved from complete shambles by Poythress’ four free throws in the final minute. Alex was clutch at the free throw line and Lee had nine rebounds; however, if they continue to no-show, they better pray Ulis, Murray, and Briscoe can make up for it.
Skal chipped in five points and four rebounds. His two dunks were baby steps of progress, but at this rate, I think we need to accept Skal for what he is and stop expecting a breakout game. It’s going to take time. If he’s ready by March, then great. If not, well, at least we’ll know how to cope.
A quote Calipari’s come back to a lot recently is that without post play, your team is a fraud. Well, save some spectacular guard play, Kentucky needs an audit.
GOOD: Isaiah Briscoe vs. the zone
We knew Mississippi State was going to use the 2-3 zone, and Kentucky prepared well, busting the zone open with 23 three-point attempts. Unfortunately, they only connected on nine of those, but Isaiah Briscoe did his best to tear the zone apart, slashing in the lane and kicking it out to whomever was open on the perimeter. Ben Howland was impressed.
“I thought Briscoe hurt us on his penetration, he was a very skilled passer. He was their best playmaker tonight with the ball.”
And he was hitting shots. Briscoe finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. When he’s playing like that, Kentucky might be able to survive more no-shows from the big guys.
As I mentioned earlier, Alex disappeared again tonight. Coming off a career-high 25 points at Alabama, Alex was non-existent, save some big free throws. What the hell? When asked about Alex’s play after the game, Calipari was so perturbed he refused to answer for him.
“Ask him. He’ll be out. He’ll be out, next question,” Cal said.
Later on, Cal came back to Alex on his own terms.
“I thought Alex made the free throws down the stretch and showed a lot of courage. There were things that he did. But in the guts of that game, he was not a factor, and when you’re that good, you need to be a factor.”
GOOD: Free throw shooting in the clutch
As I mentioned earlier, Kentucky was able to survive its second half collapse behind the steady hands of Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress at the free throw line late in the game. In the final minute, Ulis and Poythress were 6-6 from the line to ensure the win, a gift from the basketball gods to make sure the Big Blue Nation didn’t go over the edge.
…However, the Cats never would have been in a position in which they needed late-game free throws if they hadn’t tried to hand the game back to Mississippi State, which brings me to my next point…
BAD: Defensive lapses
With the Cats up 20 with 14:26 to go, admit it: you got bored. Probably started thinking about what you were going to watch after the game, checking the West Virginia/Kansas score, pregaming the State of the Union, etc. Then Kentucky fell apart on defense, letting the Bulldogs back in, and causing Calipari to lose his mind on the sidelines.
“You’re up 20 and then you just — we need Dom back, badly,” Cal said. “We’re playing some guys that don’t deserve to be in there, and then you end up playing them a lot of minutes.”
According to BigBlueHistory.net, Mississippi State’s 52.9% from the field was the highest by an opponent in Rupp Arena during the Calipari era. Ouch.
GREAT: Calipari’s postgame rant
Remember our story from earlier about Calipari buying the Powerball ticket? Turns out he bought several as part of a lesson for his team. Calipari told his team over dinner last night that they each have a Powerball ticket in their pocket already: their potential. He brought this up in the postgame press conference and the radio show with Tom Leach, a rant that may have to become part of my daily affirmations.
Calipari just went a little nuts with that lottery analogy. “PLAY! FIGHT! BATTLE! BE WORTH $100 MILLION” pic.twitter.com/DCakWGoNTi
– Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) January 13, 2016
I think Tom Leach’s face says it all:
A win is a win, but I think Calipari spoke for all of us when he summed up this team in one, succinct, infuriating phrase.
“There are a lot of things I look at and shake my head,” Cal said, staring at the box score. “But this is what happens when you’re young.”